Making Your Home Accessible

By Anna Taylor
November 24, 2009

Part 1, The Bathroom  

Let me begin by saying, I am not an expert on all disabilities. I talk about what has worked for me because I live in a wheelchair. Depending on your unique situation some of these ideas will not work for you. Consider your situation and use these ideas to fit your needs. 

When I was born, my parents were able to carry me wherever I needed to go. We used to live across the street from my mom’s work so when I came home from school, the bus would drop me off there and we would walk home. I could use any bathroom in those days because I was small and easy to move around. The
thing was I, like any other kid, started growing and needed a wheelchair to help me get around, especially at home.  

Transfers in the bathroom and the bedroom became more difficult. I guess you could say I outgrew the house. Wheelchairs can range in weight and with a growing child riding around in them, they can get very heavy. There came a point in my life, when going up and down stairs with me in a manual wheelchair became
too difficult. And I was old enough to use a power chair for mobility instead of the manual chair that required someone to push me around. Our house would
not accommodate a power chair for a number of reasons including it was a split level with a single step into the living room. A single step is the same
as the Berlin Wall to a power chair user. The house had a ranch style lay out. This meant narrow hallways with narrow doors leading off of them into bedrooms
and bathrooms. A power chair must have room to maneuver in a circle to get lined up to go through a door and the hallways wouldn’t allow it. So we decided
to move.  

A major requirement of the new house was that it should be accessible. It either had to be power chair accessible or easily made that way through a remodeling process. As a result, I am fortunate to have a fully accessible house. We made each living space as accessible as it could be for a wheelchair. We began
by doing a lot of research and them we started to make designs for the various rooms and hallways. One of the most important rooms to design was the bathroom
as it was where a lot of the transferring into and out of the chair was done. 

As with all remodeling for accessibility, the specific capabilities of the disabled person must be taken into consideration.  For instance if you can’t use your hands to grip and turn a door handle, it does little good to lower the existing handle to be within reach of a wheelchair user. So then, we made
a list of the things I could do on my own, and will be expected to do to become as independent as possible. This kind of “custom re-model” can sometimes
be expensive but costs can be kept down with a little creativity and by remembering that if a design is accessible to people in wheelchairs, it is accessible
for almost anyone.  

In my case, I can stand for a short time if someone keeps me from falling over as I have no balance capability once I am on my feet. With that in mind, it was important that the house be remodeled around the “height” of my seat in the wheelchair.  And that seat should be such that when I am standing I
can sit back onto the seat without anyone lifting me “up” into it. Given that “height” as the standard for all other things allowed us to install toilets, tables, counter tops and the bed at a height that I would always be transferring “down” to from my chair. This kind of measurement also had a second benefit
as it allowed my feet to touch the floor when I was seated somewhere besides my chair. This aids in helping me balance in a sitting position. These kinds of measurements will help any wheel chair user in all of the rooms in their house.  

Light switches should be placed in an open place and low enough to be reached from the chair. For rooms like the bathroom, the light, fan, and shower light switches should be placed outside of the bathroom. This placement is important so that you do not have to struggle to turn things on and off while having
to shut and reopen doors. 

 Light/Fan switches outside the bathroom for ease of operation from a wheelchair level.
 Edge protectors are important in all rooms of your house. These are clear protective plastic “sleeves” that you can put on the corners of walls where the
wheel chair makes turns.  Edge protectors have saved the corners of my walls from being shaved off by the power chair so many times, as I’m not the most
focused driver. Another kind of plastic protector, the “kick plate,” is a rectangular shaped plate that is as wide as a door and about a foot high. This
is used to keep doors from being damaged by the footplates of the wheelchair as the user pushes through them.  

If you imagine a “normal” sized bathroom, you need to make your picture three or four times bigger to make it accessible. The door alone needs to be at
least 3 feet wide to fit a wheelchair through it. Once inside you need a 5’ turning radius near the toilet and sink, and a similar turning circle outside in the hallway. The 5’ circles allow the chair to be lined up with the sink, toilet and doorway without hitting walls and edges.  

Before construction begins, putting strips of masking tape on the floor in an outline where things are planned to be located is a good idea. That way the person in the wheelchair/scooter can decide if they can use the space easily before putting in sinks and toilets, etc.   

 For me, using the toilet needs to be comfortable, safe and efficient. I have minimal trunk support so I need to have something to hold onto and that’s why we have “ fold-up bars” in the accessible bathroom. Presalit Bars are handrails attached to the walls on either side of the toilet to help one balance.
They can be moved into an upright or down position depending if you are or aren’t using them.  

 Presalit Bars for                  balance needs 

Most toilet seats are not comfortable in the first place when you have muscles that can’t relax, and if you have a “U” shaped seat it is even more difficult.
The solution to this is to either get a round,  padded seat or a padded reducer ring that can be removed after you are done. Again, the toilet seat needs
to be “lower” than the wheelchair so one can transfer down to it.   

Next to the toilet there is usually a roll of toilet paper. Typically it is difficult to use an “imbedded” toilet paper dispenser for people whose hands don’t bend well. If this is the case, get a toilet paper stand and have it close to the toilet. Having a stand like this is much easier to use and to move
out of the way when needed.     

If you need help wiping yourself or you are a girl dealing with feminine articles, and your legs tend to be pull together tightly,  here is an idea that works for me. Take a large towel and roll it up into a big log and put tape around it so it holds its shape. Place towel between knees while still seated
on the toilet, outside of pants and then try standing, wiping, and taking care of those other issues. The “log” keeps legs apart so that it is an easier chore for care givers.   

Another important part of the bathroom is the sink. One should think about having a shallow sink. The faucet handle needs to be long enough to be reached from the chair when it is moved close to the sink. Long lever handles from kitchen fixtures work well. The soap dispenser may need to be semi automatic
or a relatively easy push system.  You want to find something that you can work.    

A towel rack closed to the sink is also important in an accessible bathroom.  

Taking a shower is sometimes the highlight of a person’s day. A “drive-in” shower is the best way for a shower to be set up. There needs to be some discussion about what a “drive-in” shower really is. It does not mean that you take your wheelchair into the shower. This type of accessible shower is set up in such
a way that there is enough room for a separate, “shower chair” or bench to be inside the shower area. It also means that the controls are away from the actual shower head so you do not burn yourself trying to adjust water temperature. They may even be outside the shower.    

The shower chair is either a permanent resident in the shower or has wheels so that it can be moved. Once again one needs to make this chair low so that transferring is easy. It is important to consider what accessories are necessary to use this chair safely such as seatbelts, footrests, padded seats, trunk
supports and arm rests. A person would use their wheelchair or scooter to get close to the “shower chair” and then make the transfer outside of the shower.  

An accessible shower needs a shower curtain. Since you must “wheel” in and out of the shower, there will be no “lip” to step over and water can get sprayed
out of the enclosure without a custom curtain that hangs from ceiling to floor.  

Tile should be installed at least 12” up the walls of the bathroom to prevent chairs from punching holes in the lower parts of the walls as they maneuver.
The shower and floor of bathroom should be all tile as shower chairs drag a lot of water out of the shower with them. Be sure to choose a tile that is
a little rough so no one slips on the wet floor.   

Shower heads should be ones that can be removed and held if needed. The piece that holds the shower head in place should be on a pole so that it can be moved up and down to accommodate the person’s height.

Mirrors should probably take up one whole wall above the sink. It should be at eye level of the person in the chair but still high enough for standing people
to use as well. Wheelchair-height shelves are easier to use than cupboards with doors. What cupboards there are need to have easy open doors.  

One final thing to remember is that just because a product is advertised as “ADA certified” or “completely accessible,” doesn’t mean it will work for all
persons with disabilities. For instance, the faucet handle on the shallow sink in our bathroom is a single lever about 8” long. It can easily be operated
even by a person with no thumb/finger grasping capability. We found it in a “kitchen” catalogue, but it works best for all of us, disabled or not, and
looks normal in the bathroom.